By Ian Walkley
An August release from Hodder Headline, FALSE FRIENDS is British author Stephen Leather’s ninth Spider Shepherd novel. A former journalist, Stephen has been writing full-time since 1992 and has more than thirty best-sellers to his credit, from thrillers, paranormal, crime and mystery through to erotica. He is also an experienced television scriptwriter.
Described by reviewers as a “gripping, pacy and easy read” and “a great thriller from the start,” FALSE FRIENDS ties in characters from earlier novels with fallout from the killing of Osama Bin Laden.
The cover blurb reads:
When Osama Bin Laden is tracked down and killed by the Navy Seal operation in a highly protected compound in Pakistan, it’s obvious there was a leak from within. After the source is revealed to be students Malik and Chaudhry—ex-Islamic fundamentalists recruited by MI5 to disguise themselves as British terrorists—they are immediately under threat from al-Qaeda, who have sent an assassin to torture and kill anyone they suspect to be the traitor. With the assassin closing in, Shepherd is drafted in to teach the pair how to survive undercover, but it’s a major challenge. Spider is used to playing undercover cop, not the handler. And when Malik and Chaudhry are recruited to stop a Muslim extremist group’s terrorist attack on a London shopping center, he is forced to lie to them about the danger they are in. With his loyalties split, can he protect them before it’s too late?
Stephen, FALSE FRIENDS is the ninth in the Spider Shepherd series. What sort of challenges is Spider up against this time?
In False Friends, Shepherd is assigned as handler to two British Muslim students who have infiltrated an al-Qaeda cell in London. Harvey Malik and Raj Chaudhry are young and experienced but are putting their lives on the line to help their country. Shepherd has worked undercover for the police, for the Serious Organised Crime Agency (the British FBI) and for MI5, so he is given the job of teaching, and protecting, them. Running parallel to that is a second plot-line, in which Shepherd is pretending to be an arms dealer supplying weapons to a right-wing terrorist group. The twin plot lines allow me to compare the two ways of working a case, both as an undercover agent and as a handler.
How did you develop these characters?
I have written about British Muslims before, more often than not as villains, usually terrorists. But of course the vast majority of British Muslims are law-abiding citizens who are horrified by what the fundamentalists are doing in the name of their religion. I wanted to explore what it is like to be a young British Muslim in post 9-11 Britain. I have a friend who is Bangladeshi Muslim who was born in the UK, and I relied on him for much of the background of the two characters.
Raj and Harvey are from good middle-class families and want to do what’s best for their country. They find the undercover work very stressful especially as it means they have to lie to their families and their loved ones. Shepherd has to keep their spirits up, and teach them how to survive as undercover agents when one false step could end in their deaths. Towards the end of the book Shepherd has to decide where his loyalties lie—with the boys or with his boss. It’s a tough decision to make.
Lee Child says he will only ever write Jack Reacher novels. What do you enjoy about writing a variety of series characters and varying genres?
I prefer to stretch myself, and the best way of doing that is to write in several genres. I do understand the attraction of sticking with one character, but I find that can be constricting. I enjoy writing from the point of view of different characters—that to me is the fun part of writing. So I have undercover cop Dan “Spider” Shepherd and occult detective Jack Nightingale, plus a host of one-off novellas and short stories. I have written thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, horror and am trying my hand at erotica. At some point I would love to do a gory zombie novel, and I am sure there is a market for a vampire western.
Your novel SOFT TARGET predicted the London Tube bombings. You have predicted Sydney will be attacked by terrorists (I live in Brisbane, thankfully)…
My sister lives in Brisbane and I once won rather a lot of money playing blackjack in the Treasury Casino there! SOFT TARGET totally predicted the London Tube bombings. It was written almost a year before it actually happened, and in the book I have four British-born Muslim suicide bombers spreading out across the Tube network attempting to detonate their bombs at the same time. It wasn’t that I was psychic – prior to writing the book I spent a lot of time with the police and security officials and they told me at the time that multiple bombers on the Tube was their biggest fear. Several of the experts I spoke to later appeared on television at the time of the real thing.
I certainly think that Sydney remains a potential target, as are most major Western cities. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is here to stay, for the foreseeable future at least. Now I’m told the biggest threat is a “dirty bomb,” and I used that as the plot line for my book FAIR GAME.
Do you believe Al Qaeda will be looking to avenge Bin Laden’s death?
Definitely. And I am sure they are planning various atrocities as we speak. That for me was the downside of the assassination of Bin Laden – the way it was handled created a martyr, and I think we will suffer the effects of that martyrdom in years to come. There’s no doubt that a lot of Muslims around the world regarded Bin Laden as a freedom-fighting hero and will have seen his assassination as a call to arms. And they don’t need orders from a central organization to start committing acts of terror.
That’s the big problem facing the authorities – splinter groups around the world acting on their own initiative. The real threat isn’t a decision to exact revenge taken by the leaders of al-Qaeda, what the security services have to watch out for is the home-grown terrorist who decides on his own to commit an act of terrorism.
You have written erotic short stories. In light of the FIFTY SHADES OF GREY phenomenon, will we see an explosion in erotica?
I haven’t read FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and don’t intend to. But I’m not surprised that erotica is selling well in the eBook market. I realized early on that the eReader is perfect for erotica (and for more hard core pornographic literature) because of the anonymity that the eReader offers. Nobody knows what you’re reading on an eReader and you can buy any book you want without having to deal with a sales assistant. So I wasn’t surprised to see the Fifty Shades series become an eBook bestseller, though I didn’t expect it to cross over to become a major paperback bestseller.
I definitely think we will see more erotic books appearing on the eBook bestseller lists, and probably much harder stuff too. I have tried my hand at writing erotic short stories and have self-published them. But frankly I’m not great at writing erotica, the stories always end up more like thrillers!
Stephen, how do you manage to be so prolific, and yet produce such great plots?
I was a journalist for many years, on newspapers such as the DAILY MAIL, The Times and the SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST. As a journalist I’d be writing between 1,000 and 2,000 words a day, sometimes more. So as a writer of fiction I should easily be able to manage 1,500 a day. Assuming I work for 300 days a year that means I should be able to produce 450,000 words a year without too much trouble. That is the equivalent of four full-length novels. So I don’t think that I’m working too hard. I tend to think that a writer who can only produce one novel a year just isn’t working hard enough!
When I first started writing fiction, almost a quarter of a century ago, I was worried that creativity was like a well, and that you could only draw so much before the well ran dry. In fact it turns out to be more like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it gets. I probably have more story ideas ready to write than I had ten years ago. I probably have half a dozen good plots ready to go right now, any one of which would make a bestseller.
You wrote 55,000 words of FAIR GAME in 18 days—more than 3,000 words a day—while at sea on a tanker. Didn’t you get seasick?
I was on board one of the biggest ships in the world, a huge container ship called the Hydra, a 131,000 tonne leviathan with a deck the size of four football fields and a crew of 22. I actually took a supply of seasickness tablets with me but didn’t need them. The ship is so massive that it is virtually totally unaffected by the weather. There was a constant vibration from the engine but almost no movement.
The main reason for the trip was to research what life is like aboard a huge container ship, and to experience for myself what it’s like to sail through the pirate-infested waters around the Horn of Africa. In the book Shepherd has to go undercover on a ship that is about to be seized by pirates. It’s all part of a plan to rescue the Prime Minister’s god-daughter, who has been seized by the pirate group, and to thwart a terrorist plot. Of course I knew next-to-nothing about what it’s like on a container ship, and there wasn’t much information on the internet. In order to describe the ship accurately I had no choice other than to sail on one.
For the first time in years I was able to write without the distraction of a ringing phone or the temptation to drop by Facebook or check my email. It was such a good experience that I’m seriously thinking about booking a round-the-world passage to see if I can write a complete novel at sea.
So, will we see any of your characters in Australia or the US?
I’m thinking of setting a book in Australia at some point. Australia has some great flight schools and I’m thinking of taking my daughter there for flying lessons. If that works out then I’ll write a book while I’m there. I’m not sure if Spider Shepherd could work there, but I could probably come up with a reason for Jack Nightingale to be in Australia.
Spider Shepherd in America would definitely work. My thinking cap is on!
Who would be one person that has been really helpful in your writing career?
I have been with my UK publisher Hodder and Stoughton for twenty years, and for much of that time I have had the support of one of the best editors in the business, Carolyn Mays. She is brilliant, an excellent editor and a good friend.
What do you feel emerging writers should do to improve their chances of success?
Practice makes perfect. I reckon it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at anything. I did my 10,000 hours of writing as a journalist so when I wrote my first novel I had already put in the hours. The arrival of ePublishing means that any writer can offer their work for sale without getting the backing of an agent or a publisher, but I don’t think new writers should rush into publication. It takes time to produce quality writing. Learn the craft, and only when you are writing good books should you offer them for sale. Once you are producing good work you have to market and promote them, but from then on it’s really a matter of luck. Word of the mouth is the most potent marketing tool and there isn’t much you can do to accelerate that process, it either happens or it doesn’t.
On a lighter note, what sort of holidays do you have with your family?
I’m just back from ten days in Los Angeles with my thirteen-year-old daughter. We did Disneyland, Six Flags amusement park and the Universal Studio Tour, and she had flying lessons at Santa Monica Airport. I have a US pilot’s licence and she’s keen to learn. It was pretty much the perfect holiday.
If you had to sing a Karaoke number, what would it be?
Yellow River. I don’t know why but it doesn’t seem to matter if you sing it flat or out of tune. But it takes me several drinks before I can be persuaded to stand up and sing karaoke!
Stephen Leather was a journalist for more than ten years on newspapers such as the Times, the Daily Mail, and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. He began writing full-time in 1992. His bestsellers have been translated into more than ten languages.
To learn more about Stephen, please visit his website.